Last year I reviewed The Mind Illuminated, a meditation guide by Buddhist teacher Upasaka Culadasa. Last month, Culudasa’s Buddhist community accused him of cheating on his wife with prostitutes for many years. Culadasa doesn’t seem to agree with the exact details of the accusations, but he also doesn’t seem to deny that there was something in that general category of thing. What can this teach us about enlightenment?
Culadasa has been meditating and studying Buddhism for over forty years and trained under some of the greatest teachers of his generation. I don’t know if he’s claimed to “be enlightened” in so many words, but he’s written books that describe how to reach enlightenment and that assert you can do it in a few years if you follow his advice, which sounds a lot like claiming enlightenment by implication. Other self-proclaimed enlightened Buddhist teachers seem to respect him and treat him as being at around their level.
And if Culudasa wasn’t enlightened, there’s a long list of other Buddhist masters with similar misdeeds. The Atlantic points out that three of the four great founders of American Zen “caused major public sex scandals”; the fourth, Shunryu Suzuki, was spotless, but his successor Richard Baker caused a major public sex scandal. The two most famous US teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, Chongyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, both caused major public sex scandals. Trungpa’s immediate successor Ösel Tendzin caused a particularly horrifying major public sex scandal, and the current head of Shambhala Buddhism, Sakyong Rinpoche, also caused a major public sex scandal.
These teachers were among the most accomplished of our time. Many were officially certified as enlightened by the relevant governing bodies (of course there are governing bodies that certify enlightenment, we’re not barbarians). Doubt Culudasa if you want, but it would be hard to say none of these people had achieved enlightenment – at least if you want to maintain any reason to believe in enlightenment as an achievable state at all.
I don’t think many modern teachers say enlightenment makes you morally perfect. But I think at least some of them say it makes you free from craving or desire. And repeatedly cheating on your wife doesn’t seem like the action of someone who’s free from desire. It doesn’t even seem like someone whose desire has been moderately decreased. It sounds like the action of someone who has at least as much desire as anyone else. Maybe Buddhists should retreat to a minimalist account of enlightenment where it changes some brain networks around in a way that short-circuits some processing of experiences of suffering and selfhood, but doesn’t really lead to better decisions?
Tricycle Magazine discusses various theories for why Buddhist sex scandals are so common. Maybe Asians from patriarchal cultures do badly when transplanted to the more sexually liberal West (…but Culadasa was white and born in the US). Maybe powerful men are naturally tempted to behave badly when surrounded by vulnerable female students (but Culadasa didn’t have sex with his students). Maybe the Mahayana emphasis on how enlightened people transcend ordinary human norms causes enlightened people to, uh, transcend ordinary human norms (but most of Culadasa’s training was Theravada).
I recently got a chance to talk to about this with a very experienced Buddhist practitioner, one who claims to be enlightened himself. He said it’s accepted in his tradition that meditation “dissolves social conditioning”. In theory once you’ve dissolved all social conditioning, the Inner Light Of Compassion shines through and you can behave with true kindness. But in practice the Inner Light Of Compassion sometimes goes AWOL and you’re just left valueless. This works fine if you’re in a monastery like most advanced meditators were for most of history, not so well if you’re out in the real world with all the usual temptations.
This fascinates me for the same reason HPPD fascinates me. There are all these transformative practices that purport to give you a higher level of consciousness. But by Algernon’s Law, there’s presumably some reason we’re in this state of consciousness, some reason our system protects its usual state so diligently that you need powerful drugs or years of meditation to break through to anything else. Are there advantages to samsara? Are they related to the reason why so many enlightened people end up in sex scandals?